An estranged son returns home to confront his dying father.
In his debut novel, "Safe From the Sea," Minnesota writer Peter Geye demonstrates natural literary chops, a strong sense of pacing and a good ear for dialogue.
Those familiar with the North Shore will recognize descriptions, if not always names. Up North holds a special place in the lives and imaginations of Minnesotans. Geye knows his setting well, capturing the "polka-dotted beach" of dappled shade on the lake, the personality of a smoked-fish-and-agate shop, or the ping of an overheated woodstove in an isolated cabin. Like the Western Frontier in de Tocqueville's vision of America, the North Shore is an elemental place where we can discover who we really are.
Lake Superior is also the site of famous historical tragedies, from the wrecks of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975 to the Madeira during the Mataafa Blow of 1905, and beyond. Drawing on this backdrop, Geye imagines a survivor of the wreck of the Ragnorök 35 years ago. In Norse mythology, Ragnorök refers to the story of a series of battles after which comes a great flood, leaving only two people to repopulate the world. Geye slyly names one of his main characters Noah, a young man who has been trying to start a family with his wife, Natalie. Noah returns from Boston to battle the truth out of his ailing father, Olaf, in his family cabin near the fictional town of Misquah. Although Olaf's heroism has been documented in newspapers, museums and books, he dissolved into alcoholism after the wreck, continuing to work on the ore boats but neglecting his wife and family.
"Safe From the Sea" is a rich, satisfying novel about family members who make amends after a lifetime of estrangement. The plot unfolds inevitably, as it must in any narrative of an aging father and a prodigal son, with few major surprises along the way -- but we don't care about that. This is also a story about a story, and Geye so perfectly sets up the father's retelling of the shipwreck that we feel as if we are tucked in a North Woods cabin ourselves, listening to an adventure tale around the fire while the snow flies outside.
Geye also has a good sense of authentic human motives. When Olaf surprises his son with a $20,000 inheritance stored in jars in the freezer, Noah can't help but feel pleasure at the windfall. Despite his resentment toward his father, Noah also is something of a fan, eager for details of an infamous event.
If at the beginning of the novel we experience some of Noah's mistrust, by the end we share his vision of Olaf as a quasi-mythological figure who has restored balance by bestowing the story on his son.
James Cihlar is a St. Paul poet and the author of "Undoing."